To counter violent extremism, focus on the young

Getty Images

In the run-up to July Fourth, there is increasing "chatter" about the potential for a terrorist attack somewhere in the world this weekend. And behind the fear of violent extremism, is always an unspoken assumption that Muslim youth around the globe are, by and large, inclined towards negative activity, and likely to be recruited and radicalized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or another terrorist group, and that social media is today's platform for youth-inspired hatred, hostility and horrific behavior. Both are misleading assumptions and likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, ISIS has become very good at targeting young Muslims to come to Iraq and Syria and join foreign fighters in a struggle to build a caliphate. ISIS preys on youth vulnerabilities and the desperate longing by those most isolated to "belong" to something big, and to address whatever frustrations and sense of injustice young people feel by encouraging them to pick up a weapon and carry out an attack. But the media attention on terrorism carried out by young Muslims eclipses a broader story of positive youth engagement and responses to ISIS that, if leveraged, might provide a roadmap for more successful programs to counter the very violent extremism we so fear.

Today, we have a generation of young change-makers, including Muslim millennials, who are participating, positively, in addressing societal problems through nonviolent approaches to economic, social and political issues. We need to pay close attention to these voices.

"Generation Change" is a program that began five years ago during Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonObama reads mean tweet from Trump on ‘Kimmel’ 5 takeaways from the Pa. Senate debate Report: Clinton ordered operative to troll Trump with duck MORE's tenure as secretary of State to energize Muslim youth by seeding initiatives in local communities in countries as diverse as Somalia and Pakistan. What began as a nascent effort to provide networking capabilities for 75 young American Muslims has grown into an international movement of Muslim and non-Muslim youth, with chapters in 30 countries, involving hundreds of young people using social media, entrepreneurship, training and networking to advance civil society. The notion is to find young people who want skills, networking and opportunities to participate fully in the building of strong, stable societies, and let them turn their dreams into reality.

So just when you thought the U.S. Congress could do nothing of value, here is a program worth cheering on. Generation Change means that young people are becoming energized instead of radicalized, using social media and traditional outreach to do good in their own countries.

(Generation Change now resides outside of the formal State Department apparatus at the United States Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress to prevent and resolve violent international conflicts through peacebuilding.)

We need to dispel another myth: Social media is not all about hate. If you scour the Web, instead of simply looking at headlines, there are numerous examples of young people speaking out against violence and in favor of peaceful initiatives. Youtube videos show courageous young people in Kenya who protested the violent terrorist attacks on their mall. Ugandan youth are fighting back against terrorism inspired in Somalia. Young people in Egypt and Jordan are risking their lives to speak up for civil society. Tweets, blogs and online campaigns led by young activists are moving the dialogue forward about how to build peaceful and prosperous societies in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and the hemisphere. Most surprising is that governments, like the U.S. government, are often the ones starting the conversation and then, wisely, getting out of the way, so that local, indigenous efforts can take hold.

Young people, even at the age of primary school, can be agents of positive change, if empowered and allowed to create their own futures. The key, says Farah Pandith of the Council on Foreign Relations, is for governments to "stop talking, and start listening" to these powerful young voices and to provide them with the needed support to become good role models. The challenge ahead is to amplify the voices and efforts of productive young people so that the actions of groups like ISIS do not drown them out. One way is to move from talking in broad terms about the values of democracy and tolerance and demonstrate, concretely, the peace dividends that accrue to those who choose a nonviolent path. That means more funding for entrepreneurship programs in Tunisia, despite recent events. It means training students from Nairobi, Kenya, to Nepal in how to build their own local nonprofit organizations. It requires more study abroad programs, not fewer. It means investing in start-ups that use social media for positive youth activism and pushing back on cuts to education projects overseas that create online tools for social good. It means resisting the temptation to label Muslim young people as "agitators" prone to violence and take greater note of their achievements.

The recruitment and radicalization of young Muslims is real, but it does not have to be so. We can stop viewing today's global youth bulge as dangerous and begin seeing it as an opportunity to tap into a generation of talent.

Old problems of identity, culture and the toxic mix of alienation and a lack of resources won't disappear overnight. But old problems often have new solutions and the best way to counter violent extremism just might be to go young. It is, at least, a place to start.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She is a frequent contributor to The Hill and serves on the board of PeaceTech Lab, which uses new technologies to advance peacebuilding.